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Shakespeare Plays Texas: Works of the Bard create dialogue between London and Austin

Cultural exchanges can span not only miles, but time as well.

Christa French (left) and Ash Naicker perform "Twelfth Night" at Winedale
Christa French (left) and Ash Naicker perform "Twelfth Night" at Winedale.

Two programs in the College of Liberal Arts of The University of Texas at Austin have managed to cut across 400 years and thousands of miles to bring Shakespeare to Texas, and to allow students to perform in historic settings in London.

For more than 30 years, university students from all disciplines have been studying the works of the Bard through the performance of his work in the Shakespeare at Winedale program. Students spend a portion of the summer at the Winedale Theatre Barn near Round Top rehearsing and making their own costumes, props and sets before performing three plays for Central Texas audiences. Since 1998, students from the Winedale program also have had the opportunity to perform in England, and they were the first non-professional group to perform at the reconstructed Globe Theatre.

“Shakespeare at Winedale is an educational program, not an arts organization or professional theater,” said Dr. James Loehlin, associate professor in the English Department and director of Shakespeare at Winedale, as well as a former Winedale student. “We’ve always had students with no previous performance experience. A typical class will include engineering and physics majors as well as students of literature, philosophy, history and music.

“All of the elements of the program are intended to promote an understanding and appreciation of the works of Shakespeare,” he said. “Students at Winedale have the chance to embody Shakespeare’s characters and explore them from many different angles—something you really don’t get in a classroom. Audiences come to Winedale to share in this exploration, to participate in the excitement of risk-taking and discovery.”

Five members of Actors From The London Stage
Actors From The London Stage will perform on campus Oct. 2-4.

Reaching another group of students is the Actors From The London Stage (AFTLS) program. For the past six years, the Central Texas community and students alike have been able to see unique performances of Shakespeare’s work by a troupe of British actors. The five actors are veterans of the classical theater with experience in the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, and will be visiting Austin for a weeklong residency beginning Oct. 2 to perform “Much Ado About Nothing.”

“As many as 1,200 to 1,500 students will have an actor come to their classes during the residency week to provide them with a first-hand sense of what it's like to translate the text of a play back into what it originally was—something fully alive only in action,” said Dr. Alan Friedman, a professor in the English Department and director of the AFTLS program at the university.

“Because the troupe has no director, the actors must collaboratively work through dramatic solutions to each scene,” he said. “In the process, they acquire an intimate knowledge of the entire play being performed, knowledge they bring into classrooms and workshops, demonstrate, and have the students actively engage. Students benefit greatly from seeing, hearing and often performing dramatic textual complexities. The in-class exposure to a non-literary, non-academic form of problem solving is often the most rewarding part of the classroom visits.”

Christa French, a senior studying English, has seen the AFTLS performance and has been a student in the Winedale program.

Andy Crouch performs in "Henry IV, Part 1"
Andy Crouch, a student in Shakespeare at Winedale, performs in "Henry IV, Part 1."

“They are both amazing,” she said. “You see things in action, and both programs involve a lot of participation. Learning is so much more fun when you get to interact with the texts and the subject. It allows for a much deeper understanding.”

Seeing last year’s performance from AFTLS was inspirational to French, and motivated her to apply for the Winedale program.

“Seeing the actors perform, and visiting the barn is why I wanted to go into the Winedale program,” she said. “The way you normally see Shakespeare, it is about the staging and the props—they become more crucial than the words. The way these actors performed made the text come alive. They didn’t need anything else.”

One of the unique aspects of the performances by AFTLS is the lack of props, costumes or sets.

“Large-scale productions of Shakespeare often emphasize design, props, stage gimmickry and the ideas of a director, with the result that the play may become secondary, boring or abstract,” Friedman said. “AFTLS performances occur in a small area defined by 10 chairs, which become tables, cauldrons, thrones or podiums as needed. The five actors play a full script, taking 20 to 30 roles with minimal props, costumes and lighting effects, and no scene changes.

“Much of the fun lies in seeing how they mark their role shifts by gesture, stance and intonation, or the simple use of a skirt or scarf,” Friedman said. “It’s wonderful to see how even the youngest members of an audience follow the changes with ease and delight. What comes through is the brilliance of Shakespeare's language and characterizations.”

In conjunction with this year’s performance of AFTLS, the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center will be opening a new exhibit, “A Kind of Merry War: Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing,” in the Leeds Gallery of the Flawn Academic Center. The exhibit’s official opening at noon, Oct. 2, will feature a one-person show by Jax Wiliams of AFTLS performing “Women, Woven in My Tapestry of Wonder.” The Ransom Center’s copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio will also be on display at the opening, noon-1:30 p.m., Oct. 2. The display includes texts and images relating to the production history of “Much Ado About Nothing,” including illustrations of productions and costumes and photos of such actors as Ellen Terry, John Gielgud, Margaret Leighton, Peggy Ashcroft and Sam Waterston.

Robin Gerrow

Shakespeare at Winedale photos: Mark Metts

AFTLS photo courtesy Actors From The London Stage

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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